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NASHVILLE — After rising to nearly the pinnacle of power in Washington, D.C., over almost a dozen years, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker says enough is enough.
The 65-year-old chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former Chattanooga mayor announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election to a third term in 2018.
"I'm a business guy," Corker told Washington-based reporters. "I came up here for a few terms, I told people I couldn't imagine serving more than two terms."
Still, Corker struggled for months over the decision, he acknowledged.
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"You know, you get up here, you end up being chairman of the foreign relations committee and you have influence, and people urge you to stay. But for me, the citizen legislator model is the one I came up here with, I think it's what has allowed me to be an independent voice, and to try to be so pragmatic in what I do."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lauded Corker as an "integral member of our team and confidant of mine during his time in the Senate. His leadership on important issues has helped guide our conference and had a real impact at home and abroad."
Corker's chief of staff, Todd Womack, rejected any idea that Corker chose not to seek re-election because of hard-right critics seeking to topple him in the 2018 Republican primary.
Andy Ogles, former executive director of the billionaire Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee, has said he will run for the seat.
"We were fortunate in that we were in a really strong position if he'd chosen to run again," Womack said, pointing to a campaign war chest of $7.5 million.
The senator and Republican President Donald Trump had been getting along — Trump considered him as a potential vice president and later for secretary of state — but recently jousted over Trump's remarks about a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., at which a counterprotester was killed.
Corker said in Chattanooga that Trump "has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability, nor some of the competence" to "be successful."
In a tweet, Trump called the comment "strange," given that Corker had told him he was struggling over seeking a third term. But Womack said that was all patched up; the president urged him to run again and offered to campaign for him here in Tennessee.
But Trump's former White House strategist, Steve Bannon, had been working to stir up an opponent for Corker and the political website helms, Breitbart News, has been assailing the Chattanoogan in recent weeks.
Tom Ingram, a longtime political consultant who helped salvage Corker's 2006 battle with Democrat Harold Ford Jr., said Corker didn't decide to leave out of "any political fear," although he added, "That's not to say it [a third term] was a walk-in."
Blunt and usually outspoken, Corker, a former construction company owner-turned-real-estate developer, became Chattanooga's most powerful lawmaker in Washington as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He has reveled in making himself a player on issues ranging from the budget and taxes to the auto bailout and imposing sanctions on Russia. He played a role in luring Volkswagen to Chattanooga and angered the United Auto Workers by coming out against plans to unionize the manufacturing plant.
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Corker, who served as state finance commissioner under Republican Gov. Don Sundquist from 1995 through 1997, developed a reputation for getting along with Democrats who ran the General Assembly at the time.
He also did business from time to time with Democrats in the Senate. In a tweet Tuesday, top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York called Corker "a friend, fine, conscientious & hard-working. His thoughtfulness & dedication make him a model Sen. We regret him leaving."
A University of Tennessee graduate who started his own construction company before moving into development and real estate, Corker aimed high in his first political race in 1994: the GOP primary battle to take on Democrat Jim Sasser.
One of his opponents was Nashville surgeon Bill Frist, whose campaign manager likened Corker to "pond scum" for his scrappy tactics.
Frist won, but he and Corker became friends. When he decided not to seek a third term, Frist encouraged Corker, who had served as Chattanooga mayor from 2001-05, to run.
He sold most of his real estate empire in January 2006 before he ran for the U.S. Senate later that year.
In the past few years, Corker, a millionaire, has drawn criticism and public calls for investigations into his stock trading, an issue that Corker has called bogus and spurred by billionaire hedge-fund managers furious over the senator's stance on federally sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Staff writers Dave Flessner and Judy Walton contributed to this story.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter @AndySher1.
What they said
"Even when he's been investigating smugglers' tunnels near the Gaza strip, talking to foreign leaders, or giving advice to President Trump, Bob has never let his feet leave the ground in Tennessee. He says what he thinks, does what he believes is best for Tennesseans, and has helped lead his colleagues on complicated issues involving the federal debt and national security. His absence will leave a big hole in the United States Senate, but I know he's carefully weighed his decision, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he tackles next."
– U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
"Senator Corker has served his city, our state and our country selflessly and with excellence. He has made a positive difference in the lives of every Tennessean, and every American. Bob has been a close friend for over 40 years. His leadership and wisdom in the Senate will be missed, but I have complete faith in his judgment and respect his decision. I look forward to seeing what he does next. Today, I simply offer the thanks of a grateful state to Bob and his wife Elizabeth and wish them every blessing in the years ahead."
– Republican Gov. Bill Haslam
"Vulnerable Republican incumbents see the writing on the wall – they don't want to defend their disastrous health care agenda, which is toxic with voters of every political persuasion, and are terrified to engage in divisive and expensive primaries. Senator Corker's decision is the latest example of a key theme driving GOP Senate primaries across the country: divided and leaderless, Republican Senate campaigns have nothing to run on but a string of broken promises, and this dynamic will continue to define Republican Senate primaries across the map."
– Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua
"Senator Corker has served with distinction and fortitude since he was first elected in 2006. He has exemplified the leadership of past Tennessee Senators such as Bill Frist, Fred Thompson, and Howard Baker. The Tennessee Republican Party is grateful for his service to our state and all he has done for our party."
– Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden
"Bob Corker is a good man, and a great public servant who has served his state and nation with honor and distinction. While his absence will no doubt be felt in Washington, no one can blame him for wanting to return back to Tennessee, the home he has fought for, served and loved for decades. I wish Bob and Elizabeth all the best as they enter this new chapter of their lives."
– U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
"It's clear that Senator Corker didn't have the courage to go through an election cycle defending his support for the disastrous Republican healthcare plans that would have raised premiums, instituted an age tax, and thrown hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans off of their insurance. Tennesseans deserve voices that fight for them, not billionaires or political parties."
– Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini
"I was disappointed to learn that Senator Bob Corker will not be seeking re-election in 2018. Senator Corker has been easy to work with, and we have developed an excellent relationship since beginning our careers in Congress in 2006. Bob is highly respected for his knowledge of the issues, especially foreign policy. He has exhibited moments of independence reminiscent of past great Tennessee Senators. I have enjoyed his friendship and collegiality since serving together in Tennessee State government, and I will miss serving with him in Congress."
– U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.
"Senator Corker has been an effective voice for Tennesseans in the Senate. He is a devoted public servant and I wish he and his wife, Elizabeth, well in the future."
– U.S. Rep Diane Black, R-Tenn.
"Bob Corker has provided sterling service to our state. You always know where he stands and you always know he is doing the best for Tennessee. I enjoyed working with him during his tenure as Commissioner of Finance and Administration. His service as a United States Senator and as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee has been exemplary. I congratulate him on an excellent Senate career and I look forward to his future endeavors."
– Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge
"I congratulate Sen. Corker for two terms in the Senate. Despite our differences, we have a solid working relationship and I admire his expertise on foreign affairs. I wish him the best in his future endeavors, and I thank him for his service to Tennessee."
– U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
"I appreciate Senator Corker's service and the decision to end his 12 year tenure in Washington D.C. We need new faces in Washington who share President Trump's mission to drain the swamp. Grassroots activists across Tennessee have had my ear for years telling me how Tennessee needs someone who will stand up for Tennesseans and hold true to their promises. People across the country feel the same way – What we are doing in D.C. is not working for the majority of Americans and electing the same batch of folks over and over who haven't produced any results won't change a thing. It's going to be a tough year for incumbents as we are seeing in Alabama; term limits will be enforced through the election cycle. I welcome the new faces and pray we can join together to drain the swamp, making America work for Americans again."
– Andy Ogles, former leader of conservative grassroots group Americans for Prosperity – Tennessee
This story was updated Sept. 26 at 11:50 p.m. with more information.